My skepticism was unfounded. In conversation after conversation with the Khmer I meet, China's influence on this country is reviled. I have been taken aback with how vehement anti-Chinese sentiment can get (though I will not pretend the most vehement voices represent the majority position).
A few caveats before I precede. I have spent most of the last month is Siem Reap and its environs. While people from across northwest Cambodia have flocked to this city for the opportunities it provides, Siem Reap is not representative of Cambodia as a whole. Siem Reap's economy is dominated by the 2.5 million tourists who travel here every year. Because of this, no matter how much Chinese invest here, the smart thing for an ambitious Khmer hoping to raise their station here is to learn to speak English. On the flip side, Khmer here have not had to deal personally with some of the more notorious aspects of Chinese development (which I'll discuss below), as is the case with the Cambodians living in places like Sihanoukville.
I now suspect that the place to find the largest number of Cambodians most favorable to China is Phnom Penh. The Khmer of Phnom Penh have more reason to see Chinese money and people as a source of opportunity than the denizens of Siem Reap. On the other hand, Phnom Penh is big enough that Chinese investment and criminal activity will not overwhelm local life so easily. But this is just a suspicion. I will attempt to confirm or disprove it when I travel there next week.
With those caveats stated, I will make the following generalizations. Khmer have a stereotyped vision of Chinese people, businesses, and government. All of these are negative. You might group these perceptions into three categories:
1) Chinese are rude and imperious. Comments like these come most commonly from those who deal with Chinese primarily as tourists, but I have also heard it said about Chinese business owners, who "treat us Khmer like animals." Most folks complaints are more pedestrian: in contrast to Western or Japanese tourists, Chinese speak loudly in restaurants, are destructive of property, demanding when asking for service, and ungrateful when they have received it. Every single Khmer I have asked has said they would prefer to not deal with Chinese tourists if they have the opportunity to deal with tourists from different country instead (the exception here is Vietnamese, who are seen by many Cambodians as enemies to their nation or parasites on its economy).
The most amusing example of this came at the Cambodian War Museum. One of the tour guides there assured my group that if we wanted to pick up an antique gun or climb on a tank for the sake of interesting photographs, he would not mind. "We only put up those 'do not touch' signs because the Chinese tourists kept breaking things."
2) Chinese are criminals. Comments like these are especially common from Cambodians who have lived in Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, or Poipet. Cambodians accuse Chinese businesses in these areas as being fronts for Chinese criminal organizations. They have brought with them a litany of ills: foreign prostitutes, gambling rings, roving private security bands, and regular murders. This at least is what the Cambodians claim. I had a chance confirmation of some of these claims from a Chinese man I met at one of the hotels I stayed at in Siem Reap.
The man previously worked in China's domestic tourism industry. A PLA army buddy of his friend had convinced him to come to work for a casino in Poipet, which was described to him as a land of opportunity for people in his business. He had been in the town for a bit less than a month when he realized the casino he was working for had "black society" connections. When he brought this up to his new manager, he was accused of being a spy for the Chinese government. Fearing for his life, the fellow fled from Poipet to Siem Reap the next day. He was set to travel by plane back to China for the day after. The entire affair had financially hurt him: the casino had told him they would reimburse him for both his flight and the costs of accommodation in Poipet. He had to pay both out of pocket and was to scared to press his claims with the company.
This man also told me that the Chinese language newspaper in Cambodia, the Jianhua Daily, regularly reports on crimes and murders of Chinese in Cambodia. This is a thread worth exploring. Very little is said about any of this in the Western press. it is not hard to say why. Few Western reporters in Cambodia speak any Chinese, and it looks like Chinese are both the main perpetrators and main victims of here. There is also an element of danger in this kind of reporting.
Cambodians reported these things to me in very broad brush strokes. The Chinese came. Crime followed. That is the narrative.
3) Chinese abet a corrupt government. Another common complaint is that Chinese businesses have stolen Cambodian property without proper compensation. These complaints were most bitterly voiced by Khmer I have met from educated backgrounds. Cambodians would go on to assert that these businesses were allowed to do this because they had paid off the Cambodian officials that had power to stop them. The common image is of immensely entities that nevertheless trample on the rights of poor Cambodians, and do this hand-in-hand with a detested government. Chinese machinations here are often decried in the same breath as Vietnamese designs on the country. In both cases, a substantial number of Khmer believe that Hun Sen's regime is essentially the plaything of foreign masters who do not have Cambodian interests at heart. I have been surprised by the number of Khmer who compared this unfavorably to the government's past dependence on Western governments and Western sourced aid. I have even taken to drawing the comparison in more negative terms myself just to gauge Cambodian reactions to it: "But is Chinese money really any different than having to rely on the money of white people?"
Thusfar—to my surprise—I have yet to meet a Cambodian who thinks this is a valid comparison.
In other words: the center-left pleasing narrative is not something journalists have imposed on Cambodian society. Its main ingredients are clearly there for anyone interested enough to ask about it.